Islamist vote blowing in the wind, as Abu-Ismail and El-Shater exit race

Zeinab El Gundy, Wednesday 25 Apr 2012

Many Egyptian presidential candidates, including secular frontrunners Moussa and Sabbahi, are busy lobbying for the religious vote after disqualification of the two Islamist favourites

El-Shater and Abu-Ismail
El-Shater and Abu-Ismail

After the exclusion of Hazem Abu-Ismail and Khairat El-Shater, two strong Islamist candidates, from the first presidential elections after the January 25 Revolution set for May, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Committee has now rejected the candidates’ petition against their exclusion from the race, leaving the race for the powerful Islamist vote in Egypt wide open.

Abu-Ismail, a former Muslim Brotherhood man and known to the public as a Salafist Islamist preacher, was regarded as the number one Islamist presidential candidate for the Salafists, as well as for conservative Islamists.

Khairat El-Shater, the vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of its leading figures, was expected to win the substantial Brotherhood vote. The Brotherhood’s leadership had in fact decreed that any member who voted for a different candidate, particularly rival Islamist figure Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, would be expelled from the organisation.

Accordingly, there are now three Islamist presidential candidates running: former leading Brotherhood figure Abul-Fotouh; current leader of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Morsi; and famous Islamist thinker and lawyer Mohamed Selim El-Awa.

Based on the latest poll, conducted among 1,200 citizens by Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Centre, and published last Sunday after the exclusion of Abu Ismail, Omar Suleiman and El-Shater, the favourite candidate among the sample was Amr Moussa with 40.9 per cent, followed by Abul-Fotouh with 25.2 per cent, then Ahmed Shafiq at 10.5 per cent, then Hamdeen Sabbahi at 9.3 per cent. The Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi came in at only 0.9 per cent.

According to the poll, the second preferred choice for Hazem Abu-Ismail’s supporters was Abul-Fotouh, at 25.8 per cent, followed by Amr Moussa at 20.8 per cent, followed by Khairat El-Shater on 20.5 per cent.

The second favourite presidential candidate for Khairat El-Shater’s supporters was Abu-Ismail on 54.3 per cent, followed by Mohamed Morsi on 12.6 per cent, then Abul-Fotouh on 11.6 per cent.

Al-Masry Al-Youm Arabic newspaper published its own poll on 14 April; Abul-Fotouh was the second preferred choice for Abu- Ismail and El-Awa’s supporters, as well the second option for El-Shater’s supporters.

Although Abul-Fotouh has a good chance among Salafist voters based on these results, he does not have the same strong support among Muslim Brotherhood voters, who shifted their vote choice from Khairat El-Shater to Mohamed Morsi automatically.

As in the case of El-Shater, the Brotherhood leadership re-issued its order to its members not to vote for anyone in the presidential elections except the group’s official candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

Last Monday, thousands of Brotherhood members attended a Morsi election rally event at Mansoura stadium in full force; some Brotherhood members took photos of the crowds and compared the image to that of the Muslim holy site the Kaaba during the Islamic pilgrimage of the hajj, and asked if any other Islamist candidate had this level of popularity.

Nonetheless, the fight over the Islamist vote is not only about the Brotherhood, but also about the Salafist vote.

The Salafist vote, which was leaning towards Abu-Ismail, is now the target of the remaining presidential candidates, who are particularly keen to get the endorsement of the major Salafist groups in the country.

On the same Monday, Abul-Fotouh met with the sheikhs of the Salafist Front in Alexandria to discuss his presidential programme and to seek their endorsement and recommendation.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Morsi, along with excluded candidate Khairat El-Shater , met with Dawa El-Salafiya (Salafist Call) sheikhs in Alexandria for similar discussions

The Salafist-oriented Nour Party is still yet to announce who has received its endorsement, and is waiting for the final list of eligible presidential candidates.

Non-Islamist candidates also see potential in the Salafist vote. Pro-revolutionary Nasserite candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi promised in a public meeting two days ago in Quwayansa, Monufiya governorate, that despite his support for the civilian state, he will seek to adopt the principles of Islamic sharia.

Former prime minister and recently disqualified presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq had also flirted with the Islamist vote on, saying on television that he is a Sufi and does not stand against sharia law.

Frontrunner Amr Moussa also met the Salafist Front in Alexandria on Tuesday to discuss his programme with them, and the day before, he had meetings with representatives of the Sufi orders in Egypt.

Both the El-Gabha El-Salafiya (Salafist Front) and Dawa El-Salafiya (Salafist Call), two major conservative groupings, announced already that they will declare their full position on presidential candidates when the committee issues its final list of candidates on 26 April.

Just as revolutionary groups fear that having several pro-revolutionary presidential candidates will divide the pro-revolution vote, Islamist powers fear that the Islamist vote will be divided in the same way, as it seems unlikely that the Islamist groups will agree on a single candidate.

There have been attempts by the centrist-Islamist Wasat Party in the past months to create some kind of deal between the Islamist presidential candidates, especially between Abul-Fotouh and El-Awa, but the attempts have so far failed.

After announcing the sudden candidacy of El-Shater as the official presidential candidate of the Brotherhood , there were rumours of talks between the Salafist leading groups and Hazem Abu-Ismail about giving Abu-Ismail the vice-presidency if  El-Shater became president, but the talks failed.

The Brotherhood have recently made it clear that they may agree to a unified Islamist candidate in order not to split the vote, on the condition that the candidate will be their man, Morsi, who was described by Brotherhood leaders in press two days ago as the “only Islamist candidate in the race.”

Between polls, partisan endorsements, and the long wait for the final list of eligible candidates on 26 April, it is still unclear which of these candidates will capture the support of the Islamist street. 

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